Atlantic Cities

Florida Might Revamp the State's 'Stand Your Ground' Law

Florida Might Revamp the State's 'Stand Your Ground' Law
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The Florida law that dominated headlines before, during and after the George Zimmerman trial could soon be getting a significant amendment.

Last week, the Florida state senate's Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approved the Threatened Use of Force Act, which would expand the circumstances under which someone could use Stand Your Ground as a defense. 

As written, Florida's Stand Your Ground law allows someone to use deadly force to protect himself, without the responsibility to retreat, if he believes his life is in danger. The Threatened Use of Force Act would extend that protection to someone who, under similar circumstances, only brandished a gun or fired a warning shot.

"The point is to prevent prosecution of people who use firearms in self-defense, but don't actually shoot or kill an attacker," says Greg Newburn, the Florida director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "Prosecutors routinely argue that a warning is itself evidence that a person wasn't sufficiently afraid to pull a firearm. ('If he was really afraid he'd have shot him.') This bill corrects that problem." 

The Threatened Use of Force Act has an obvious poster child in Marissa Alexander. In 2010, Alexander fired a warning shot during an argument with her abusive husband. Because her children were present, Alexander was found guilty of aggravated assault with a firearm, and was sentenced to 20 years under Florida's draconian 10-20-Life law. In brief, that law says brandishing a firearm gets you 10 years, firing it gets you 20 years, shooting someone gets you 25 years-to-life.

Alexander has received an outpouring of support from criminal justice advocates and critics of a self-defense law that protected a white Hispanic man who killed a black teenager, but failed to protect a black woman who defended herself without harming anyone. 

While Newburn supports the bill, he doesn't know yet whether it will affect the outcome of future cases against people like Alexander; or that of Orville Lee Wollard, a Florida man who fired a warning shot to scare away his daughter's violently abusive boyfriend, and is now serving 20 years behind bars. 

"Chairman Evers was clear and put it on the record that the legislative intent of this bill is to prevent the abusive prosecution under 10-20-Life of citizens who threaten the use of force in self-defense," Newburn says. "However, State Attorney [Bill] Cervone said that the prosecutors don't really think the bill does anything at all, which to me suggests that even if this bill passes, they don't plan to change the way they prosecute cases."

Marion Hammer, a lobbyist for the NRA, put it best in a statement to the Herald. "If you actually shoot an attacker, the law protects you. But if you merely threaten to shoot an attacker and the attacker runs away, some prosecutors will still try to put you in prison for 10 to 20 years. Some, not all, but any is too many."

Top image: While George Zimmerman's defense team didn't cite Stand Your Ground, at least one juror nevertheless believed that it applied to the killing of Trayvon Martin. (Gary W. Green/Reuters)

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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